U.S. Agency for Global Media – Here We Go Again



U.S. Agency for Global Media…Here We Go Again

By The Federalist

If there is one thing the U.S. Agency for Global Media (USAGM) excels in its reaffirming Einstein’s definition of insanity: doing the same thing over and over again and expecting a different result.

Case in point:

On June 17, the agency sent out an email regarding its latest rendition of a “strategic plan” (“USAGM Strategic Plan 2022-2026”).

The email from Shawn Powers (USAGM Chief Strategy Officer) starts out by saying, “I’m reaching out to you today to get your input.” That is something of a novel approach for this agency, if it is true and not just for show.

His former patron, former USAGM Chief Strategy Officer who was the top aid to the former Obama administration’s USAGM CEO, went to prison for stealing taxpayer’s agency money. Why isn’t his former boss’s and his former patron’s strategic plan good enough for the agency? U.S. taxpayers, members of Congress, administration officials and media reporters have been fooled before by USAGM strategic planners.

Powers goes on to say, 

It is important that the USAGM Strategic Plan 2022-2026 takes into consideration all ideas and perspectives from interagency partners, media and public diplomacy experts, and those that know this agency’s mission, operations, as well as its challenges.”

It sounds good in a superficial way. But as is almost always the case with this agency, the test is whether it is form or substance.

This agency has been down the “strategic plan” route before with what one might characterize as unimpressive results. Maybe more to the point, no results. We’ve noted in the past our perspective that “strategic planning” with this agency is something of an oxymoron. 

As we like to say, strategic planning in the form of five-year plans didn’t work for the Soviets. It isn’t going to work for this agency. Indeed, it hasn’t worked for this agency. And that’s the track record we go by.

Here is an alternative view of what may be the underlying motivation of this latest “strategic plan.”

Whether it is Soviet apparatchiks or USAGM bureaucrats, these so-called multi-year plans are a not-so-clever ways of disguising failure and/or perpetuating the existence of the agency without regard to mission success.

Let’s consider the following:

This agency is the pits. On many levels. 

  • By Washington standards it is something of a monument to dysfunction and chaos. 
  • To this day, it is regarded as one of the worst agencies in the Federal government. It consistently ranks at or near the bottom of the Federal Employee Viewpoint Survey (FEVS).
  • Its audiences are evaporating in key strategic areas: China, Iran and Russia.
  • It has had key background/security clearance authority taken away from it and placed under the Department of Defense.

It doesn’t get any worse than when Brian Conniff (a former agency official and participant in the Biden administration’s USAGM transition team) states that he is working to restore the agency’s reputation within the federal government, Congress, the Office of Management and Budget (OMB) and the State Department.  Conniff’s and Powers’ current boss, acting USAGM CEO Kelu Chao, has been occupying managerial positions at the agency for decades.

Add to that, probably the Office of Personnel Management (OPM) and the Office of the Director of National Intelligence (ODNI) which were instrumental in exposing the agency’s shortcomings in its background/security clearance procedures.

This agency is gone. Way far gone.

And this doesn’t take into account rolling scandals in the language services of the Voice of America (VOA) and determinations of biased news reporting in the VOA newsroom when Kelu Chao was VOA Program Director.

ALSO READ: ‘Voice of America listens to bullsh**,’ outraged independent Meduza journalist dismisses a VOA Russian Service report

It has reached the point that what is necessary isn’t a new “strategic plan” but a dismantling of the agency with its incompetent and inept management.

The only thing a USAGM “strategic plan” does is perpetuate the status quo.

We are almost certain of a repeating refrain:

  • Strategic plan gets underway.
  • Strategic plan runs into trouble or produces little or no meaningful impact.
  • Authors of the strategic plan run to Congress and ask for many more millions of taxpayer dollars to extend the strategic plan in perpetuity.

In short, classic Soviet-style thinking.

It’s a cavalcade of comedy, only it isn’t funny. It comes at the expense of the American taxpayer. And at present, it comes at a time when the current thinking in Washington is the revolving cycle of tax and spend.

Another example:

Something that might be included in the agency’s “strategic plan” is the perennial discussion of moving the agency out of the decrepit, rodent and snake infested Cohen Building (USAGM and VOA headquarters in Washington, DC). This issue all by itself has a price tag of millions and maybe billions of dollars attached to it:

  • Find new physical Federal office space.
  • Retrofit future office space to accommodate the agency’s enormous technology demands.
  • Renovate the office space of the Cohen Building removing thousands of feet of electronic cabling, radio and TV studios.
  • Running proof of performance tests to make sure the new facility is functional.
  • Running parallel operations, one online and one offline to test the new equipment.
  • Buying a substantial amount of new equipment and/or incrementally moving the agency’s operations piece by piece to the new facility.
  • Installing the agency’s IT infrastructure.

Sort of the tip of the iceberg, but it will most certainly keep a lot of bureaucrats employed for years to come while broadcasters won’t get the money for news coverage and travel. That’s how the USAGM and VOA bureaucracy has operated for decades.

Here’s the way we see it:

No five or six year strategic plan is going to fix what amounts to at least 20 years of deterioration in the agency’s mission effectiveness, personnel practices, hostile work environment and a myriad of other issues. It’s not going to happen.

What isn’t needed is another “strategic plan” for a broken agency. What is needed is seeking alternatives to what the agency does.

In a manner of speaking, the only thing “strategic” about this “plan” is to provide seed money for years of reconstitution of this agency – and that in and of itself is no sure thing. That means years after the proposed initial strategic plan runs its course.

Remember what Conniff said:  to restore the agency’s reputation within the federal government and with Congress, OMB, State Department, OPM and ODNI just to name the leading elements.

The potential for accomplishing this in six years – with the same inept and incompetent bureaucrats in charge is more than highly suspect.

And that is just domestically – within the apparatus of the federal government. It doesn’t take into account external events abroad and whether or not the agency is seen as credible by foreign publics.

Remember, to appearances the agency’s priority language audiences (China, Iran, Russia) are in tatters. Right behind them come second level audiences, a good number of them in Africa where the agency is seen as supporting non-democratic governments.

And on top of that comes cyberwarfare measures taken by hostile actors which is an ongoing threat. And don’t believe that the agency has an ironclad action plan for continuous cyber security. That doesn’t exist anywhere, least of all at USAGM.

In short:

It’s a mess.

But the real failing in all of this is tolerating ongoing and seemingly insolvable dysfunction. Throwing money at the problem only makes the problem systemically worse. Continuing that endless cycle of waste is a cycle that both Congress and the White House need to break.

So, let’s give this “strategic plan” our vote of no confidence.

Don’t expect a miraculous turnabout.

The Federalist

June 2021

Photo: Shawn Powers, U.S. Agency for Global Media (USAGM) Chief Strategy Officer